Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Faking It : Elmyr de Hory - The Century's Greatest Art Forger

Momentarily Fooled

In 1952, Elmyr de Hory returned to Los Angeles after a prosperous sojourn to Dallas, Texas. He had managed to sell some of his stash of alleged masterpieces, including some Picasso and Matisse drawings. He had made a huge profit and was hoping he would be equally successful in Southern California. Elymr had set up an appointment with art dealer Frank Perls, owner of a well-known Beverly Hills gallery, and he planned to unload more of his art works for another sizeable profit.

Frank Perls of Perls Gallery
Frank Perls of Perls Gallery. Frank Perls papers, Archives of American Art

Elmyr dressed in his best suit for the occasion, carrying with him a large portfolio. At his meeting with Perls, Elmyr presented what he claimed were drawings he inherited from his family following World War II. The portfolio purportedly included sketches from Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Modigliani.

Perls took one look at the works and was immensely impressed. After all, its not often that one has the chance to hold great masterpieces by some of the worlds most famous artists. However, the longer Perls looked at the pictures the more concerned he became. It was clear that something was wrong and Perls worrisome expression discomforted Elymr.

Fake! by Clifford Irving
Fake! by Clifford Irving

According to Clifford Irvings book Fake! Perls questioned Elmyr about his address and other detailed personal information, causing Elmyrs nervousness to grow.    Perls then calmly placed the pictures back into the portfolio, tied the strings, and then suddenly threw the mat at Elmyr. Elmyr was shocked by the unexpected action and was uncertain what to do next until Perls ordered him to get out.

Elmyr then walked out of the gallery with Perls yelling behind him. Perls observed what an untrained eye would likely never notice: these works were clearly fakes. It was also true that they were    created masterfully.

To Perls surprise, Elmyr asked after being thrown out of the gallery whether he thought the drawings were well done. According to Irving, Perls replied, they certainly fooled me for a few minutes before ordering the counterfeiter away again. The incident was not Elmyrs first or last time at trying to sell excellent forgeries. In fact, he had been doing it successfully for years.

Unbeknown to Frank Perls, Elmyr had sold some forgeries to Perls brother Klaus in New York several years earlier. Elmyrs involvement with the two Perls brothers would later cause unexpected problems. In fact, one of the Perls brothers would be directly involved in what would later be the end of Elmyrs career as a skillful art forger.

For approximately three decades Elmyr de Hory used his extraordinary talent to reproduce masterpieces from some of the worlds greatest artists, including Picasso, Vlaminck, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, Dufy, Derain, Matisse, Degas, Bonnard, Laurencin and Modigliani. His accuracy for detail fooled even the most skilled art connoisseurs into believing that his creations were authentic. Given their alleged provenance, Elymrs sold his forgeries for high prices. Moreover, he managed to elude Interpol and the FBI for most of his criminal career.

Modigliani fake by Elmyr de Hory
Modigliani fake by Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory eventually became known worldwide as one of the most talented and greatest art forgers. Even after his death, Elmyrs works still attracted attention. Some of them even sold for the same prices as the originals. Like many famous painters, he would die penniless after a series of unfortunate events.

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